Blue is the colour of the police uniform worn by the character known simply as the Father – he is, in a sense, every father. And it’s the colour of woe. Policing, fatherhood and sorrow collide in a story that rings horribly true on the 30th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence.
But first, there is unrestrained joy, and one of the many strengths of Blue is that it focuses throughout the first act on ecstatic early love and rapture of new parenthood.
The Mother (Nadine Benjamin) reveals her pregnancy to her three friends. Photo: Zoe Martin
The Mother is a talented restaurateur teased by her three vivacious girl friends when she reveals the new man in her life. They are taken aback by his career, but delighted at her pregnancy, until the Mother announces that the baby will be a boy, which prompts alarm. A black boy is born into danger.
The Father has never cradled a child, and is movingly taught how to hold his new son, amid the din of the hospital, in a touching song that will be repeated in a different context as events unfold.
The vibrant girlfriends, the police mates at the American football game, the brisk nurse and a priest are characters created in the brilliant score, as well as on stage, in music that strides comfortably between jazz and show tunes, gospel and soul, nodding at Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim on the way.
The Father's friends wet the baby's head. Photo: Zoe Martin
Tazewell Thompson’s poetic libretto is an exuberant celebration of life as well as a vehicle, and the opera is cleverly constructed so that we do not slide inexorably from happiness to despair but celebrate, almost to the end, the rough and tumble of family life. As the Son, rising tenor Zwakele Tshabalala captures to a T the switch from sullen teenager to cheery eater when food is produced.
The Son, with artistic talent, has taken up causes as he grows, and has his brushes with the law, to the chagrin of his father, who will love him unreservedly while not condoning his actions. This is every parent’s challenge. As the Father, American baritone Kenneth Kellogg completely inhabits this role. This is not a man singing a part, but being a lover, good citizen, parent and challenged churchman.
Soprano Nadine Benjamin is similarly compelling, singing with glorious passion as the Mother – a giddy newly-wed and determined businesswoman who is fulfilled by motherhood. When her world turns upside down – literally, thanks to a stupendous set-within-a-set by Alex Lowde – she is flattened, eviscerated by grief.
Zwakele Tshabalala as The Son defies The Father (Kenneth Kellogg). Photo: Zoe Martin
A big shout-out, appropriately, in the case of the Nurse, who she also plays, for American soprano Chanáe Curtis as Girlfriend 1, with Sarah-Jane Lewis and Idunnu Münch as sparky Girlfriends 2 and 3. In one of many operatic references by Tesori, their encouraging presence is reminiscent of Mozart’s Three Ladies in The Magic Flute.
‘Thou shalt bring forth no black boy into this world,’ they warn, prophesying trouble, as alarmed by the baby’s gender as the police mates are delighted. John-Colyn Gyeantey, Rheinhaldt Tshepo Moagi and Joshua Conyers are engagingly sympathetic as these envious fellow officers.
Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts, complete master of all the score’s many musical genres, and with the Orchestra of English National Opera on top form, right down to the growliest contrabassoon.Tinuke Craig’s direction is pitch perfect. Lowde's stylish design and Davi Deepres's video conjure up the city, the home, the big match and the church.
Friends and family are united in grief. Photo: Zoe Martin
Blue, which was first staged in the US in 2019, is being given its UK premiere. And what a fantastic final full-scale production in the ENO year it is. (A staging of Henryk's Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is the coda.)
How ironic, that this innovative and hard-working company, should have been turned into canon fodder in manufactured culture wars. In 50 years of opera-going, I have never seen a more diverse audience than at this performance. And I have rarely seen a new opera of this calibre and with such imaginative casting.
As the first chords of this exciting work sounded at the Sunday afternoon performance, so did the government’s test alarm, on phones all over the house. Perfect timing. An endangered ENO is a national emergency. Do panic. Click here to book
Blue is sung in English with English surtitles. Further performances are on 26, 30 April; 2, 4 May.
Click here to book
|What||Blue, English National Opera review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
20 Apr 23 – 04 May 23, Six performances, start times vary. Running time 2hr 30min
|Website||Click here for details and booking|